We wrap up our two-part series taking a look at the defensive Hokies who are entering a "make or break" season in 2021.
What makes a "make or break" season could be someone who needs to take the next step to show they haven't reached their ceiling as a starter or star. It's also someone who needs to take their game up to the next level in order to avoid getting buried on the depth chart by younger players. It could also be a former highly-regarded recruit who maybe hasn't fulfilled the full fan hype that they had upon arrival.
So with that said, here are three defensive Virginia Tech players who are entering "make or break" seasons in 2021.
LB Dax Hollifield
Dax Hollifield is undoubtedly one of the most popular players currently at Virginia Tech among fans, but over the past couple seasons, he's slowly but steadily gone from the clear starting backer to losing the job as the primary backer to Alan Tisdale. While Hollifield still largely rotated in during the 2020 season, it was clear that Tech's top backer was Tisdale.
The numbers show the gap that led to Tisdale taking over as he had 7 more tackles and 2 more tackles for loss than Hollifield despite playing in one fewer game.
Now with Rayshard Ashby gone, Hollifield moves back to his more natural mike linebacker position where expectations are undoubtedly high for Hollifield given the promise he's shown in the past and how well known it is that mike was always the better fit for him.
While Hollifield does feel like a breakout candidate in some ways, this also feels like a "make or break" season for him. Unlike others, it's clear that Hollifield is the guy for Tech at mike linebacker, but there are plenty of reasonable questions as to whether he's reached his peak or if he still has room to grow given how he seemed to plateau at backer while Tisdale grew a lot from the start of 2019 to the end of 2020.
There's no doubt that Hollifield is one of the most well-known Hokies on this team, but the question is has he reached his plateau as a linebacker or is a move to mike linebacker set to unleash his potential? This season should give us the clear answer to that question.
CB Brion Murray
Brion Murray may have started 8 games last season, but he enters the 2021 season in a much different situation with Jermaine Waller healthy and favored to start alongside youngster Dorian Strong. Additionally, Murray also has a battle for playing time with Armani Chatman who's also looking to climb back up the depth chart, and Nadir Thompson who showed lots of promise when COVID absences gave him some opportunities.
Murray is a fascinating cornerback who has had plenty of ups and downs during his time in Blacksburg, and has always been a better zone coverage DB than man coverage cornerback. That has been a good fit at times as the Tech defense has worked in a lot more zone elements intentionally in recent years due to the growth of mobile, freelancing quarterbacks in college football.
Murray also has put up some good numbers during his Tech career including 36 tackles, 2 interceptions, and 4 pass breakups last season. However, Murray's struggles in man coverage at times definitely raise some concerns about his ability to be a starting cornerback for Tech even with the increased use of zone under Justin Hamilton.
Additionally, a healthy Waller and a fast-rising, high-ceiling Strong puts Murray in a tough spot battling for that third cornerback job with Chatman, who is almost in a similar situation to Murray, and Thompson with the potential for other new arrivals like D.J. Harvey to jump right into the depth chart battle as well.
There's no denying that Murray has lots of talent, but the question is can he fully establish himself as a starter or at least position himself to be a starter in the future should Waller leave after this season for the NFL. If he doesn't and falls behind other young cornerbacks beyond Dorian Strong, Murray's future as a starter in college football may be outside of Blacksburg.
DB Nasir Peoples
After Devon Hunter's suspension, Nasir Peoples was poised to take the starting rover/strong safety spot until a season-ending injury took him out of the picture. Now Peoples may only be a redshirt sophomore but it feels like he's in a battle to ensure he has a path to be a future starter if not earn a starting job this year.
There's no doubt that the safety positions are wide open with Vanderbilt transfer Tae Daley and former standout recruit Devon Hunter headlining the competition. Meanwhile, Devin Taylor showed loads of promise as a ball-hawking free safety last season and while he has room to grow as a tackler, there's no doubt the upside is there.
Combine that with former four-star J.R. Walker looking to breakthrough and Keonta Jenkins being a safety of the future for sure if not now after multiple starts in 2020 and there's no doubt that Peoples has to make his move for playing time now.
Of course, Peoples has received plenty of praise from Justin Fuente and his staff over the years helping himself earn special teams and backup safety reps. However, there are plenty of players older and younger ready to usurp him on the depth chart especially Walker and Jenkins who could bury Peoples on the depth chart if he isn't careful.
Peoples isn't getting a lot of talk going into camp, but there's no doubt that he has the potential to breakout and even earn a starting job this year. However, it feels like Peoples needs to step his game up now or else, he may not reach the starting potential that injuries held him back from reaching in 2020.